One of the amazing things about the Nintendo DS is that it allows developers to do things that you can't on any other system. Sure, the PlayStation Portable may be more powerful than the DS, but power isn't everything. The DS' weaker graphics mean that developers have to work more carefully on their art style, or even return to the olden days and use sprites instead of 3-D models. The DS touch-screen permits gameplay features that simply can't be done on any other system, except perhaps the Wii. However, the DS' biggest games tend to not take full advantage of these features, relying instead of established properties, 3-D graphics, and the d-pad and face button controls. Occasionally, a game comes along that shows off exactly what the DS can do, and Lock's Quest from 5th Cell is one of those rare gems. It also happens to be one of the most enjoyable games to hit the DS in a long while.
Lock's Quest follows the story of a young man named Lock. He's an Archineer, which is a special kind of mage/warrior who is capable of creating buildings and walls out of thin air using a special material called Source. He and his sister Emi are living peacefully in a small coastal village when they discover that the outside world isn't quite as peaceful. A rogue army of mechanical soldiers called Clockworks, led by a mad Archineer named Lord Agony, are marching on the land, seeking to take over and establish a Clockwork Kingdom of their own. When they attack Lock's village, he is separated from his sister and quickly drafted into the Antonia army, the last and best hope against the Clockworks. Before long, Lock finds out that neither side is quite what they appear ….
Lock's Quest may bit a bit weak in the plot, but it tells the story in a helplessly likeable way. Sure, you'll probably predict every plot twist way in advance, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable. The game is self-aware and playful without descending into self-mocking snark. It honestly feels like a lost title from the SNES era, and unlike games that attempt to mimic that idea, it does it in such a wholehearted manner that I can't help but have my nostalgia tickled. It descends a bit too far into angst at some points, but it never lingers there for too long. It isn't really a game to play for the story line, but the story line doesn't hurt the game, either.
Lock's Quest is a real-time strategy built around the idea of fortification, not unlike the popular Tower Defense Flash games that one can play on the Internet. You're given something to defend, be it a particular area or a particular person, and you have to protect it from the oncoming Clockwork armies. Combat is divided into two sections: Build and Battle. In Build, you're given a brief period of time in which to build fortifications around your defensive target by spending Source, which is is a powerful magical material that can be used to create solid objects out of thin air. The more powerful your material, the more Source it costs. The only way to get more Source is to defeat Clockworks and take the Source that powers them, so it is quite important to be frugal with your building. Your goal is to outlast the Clockworks, who only have a limited lifespan in which they can survive. If you can outlast them, then you can move on to the next day.
You have three kinds of fortifications that you can buy: walls, turrets and traps. Walls are solid fortifications that block an enemy's progress, but offer no other bonuses. Even at their strongest level, walls only cost one-fifth the Source of a turret, which makes them useful for plugging gaps in your defenses without breaking the bank. Walls also boost the defense of turrets around them. If your turret is next to a wall, it will gain a defense bonus, and if there are walls on both sides, that defense bonus will increase even more. By staggering turrets and walls, you can increase your overall defense for fairly cheap. As the game progresses, you'll unlock new building material for your walls, such as stone or steel. These materials are stronger, but also more expensive, and it's up to you to decide if the extra defense is worth the extra Source.
Turrets are your primary offensive weapon, and they come in a wide variety of styles. You've got your default turret, which is powerful but unimpressive, and then a group of turrets with unique status effects. Some turrets can poison enemies, slow them down, attack multiple enemies at once, or even attack airborne enemies. There are even helper turrets, which don't directly attack, but instead boost the power or range of a nearby turret. The downside is that turrets are expensive. Creating a wall of turrets will give you unsurpassed firepower, but you're going to spend a lot of Source to keep it going, and if you're not careful, you'll break the bank trying to replace lost turrets. Like walls, turrets also can be made of stronger material, and like walls, they also gain a hefty price increase when they do so.
Your final weapons are traps, which are a bit different from anything else. An Archineer is capable of building traps, since they're only supposed to last for one day. Unlike the rest of your defenses, traps vanish before the next build phase, and you have to pay to replace them. Their benefits far outweigh their negatives: Traps are extremely cheap, and even the best traps in the game only cost a mere 200 Source. Furthermore, traps are extremely powerful and can affect everything in a three-by-three square on the trap, and careful positioning of them can be absolutely devastating to enemy forces. Lure a boss into a clever trap, and you can devastate it with bad statuses and powerful explosions. Furthermore, traps can't be damaged by anything but the semi-rare flying unit, so they provide an amazing defensive wall. While it may seem a bit much to replace them all after each round, traps are easily your best friend.
Once you've built up a powerful defense (or your time runs out), Lock's Quest switches into the Battle Phase, during which you can control Lock directly by using the stylus. It is your goal to keep your defenses up and harass enemies while you try to outlast the enemy attacks. Lock has a wide variety of options at his disposal, but keep in mind that he isn't a combat monster. He gains the ability to inflict a wide variety of bad statuses or damage onto enemies by using special Archineer abilities. You do this by clicking on an enemy, which activates a special touch-screen mini-game; you may have to press numbered buttons within a time limit, rotate a cog, pull switches, and so on. Complete the mini-game successfully, and you do additional damage to the enemy and inflict him with a bad status. Lock has a fairly substantial health bar, but being pounded by enemy armies will quickly drain it, so he can't stand and fight head-on for long. Luckily, moving away from enemies allows his health bar to slowly refill, so you can perform quick hit-and-run attacks.
Beyond his combat abilities, Lock also has a number of special Archineer skills at his disposal. His most basic skill is the ability to repair damaged buildings, which is activated by simply clicking on a wall. You can play another touch-screen mini-game here to speed things up, which allows Lock to keep his buildings intact during particularly nasty enemy rushes, or to refresh a building while waiting for the next wave of Clockworks. The rest of Lock's special abilities are powered by his power bar. This bar slowly fills up as he repairs buildings or fights enemies, and when it reaches at least half-way, Lock can activate one of his four super abilities to turn the tide of battle. He can slow all enemies on the field, hit them all with lightning, repair all friendly buildings, or even increase the amount of Source that an enemy Clockwork drops when defeated. The more of a bar he has, the more effective the skill is, although any skill use drains the entire bar.
It's important to master all of Lock's abilities, since the Clockwork Army is populated by thousands, if not tens of thousands, of seemingly unstoppable soldiers. The Clockworks come in a wide variety of flavors, and no single defense is good against all of them. There are group troops that can heal, cast magic, burrow under fortifications or even turn invisible, and you'll have to analyze the makeup of the enemy soldiers and figure out what you need. Is it worth wasting space on a Revealer Turret when Invisible Clockworks are rare on that stage, or on Deep Charge Traps when burrowing Clockworks are nearby? This is made even more important since each stage has a different objective. In some stages you'll have to defend multiple targets, defend a target while attacking an enemy base, or even defend targets that are moving along a pathway, so your defenses will have to be reset each day. It's also important to note that Source is carried from battle to battle, so if you save your Source, you'll have a greater supply for the tougher, later stages.
Lock's Quest is a load of fun. The gameplay develops slowly, introducing new Clockworks, turrets and fortifications and allow you to get used to one tool just in time for the next to arrive. Perhaps my only complaint about this is that the gameplay is a tad bit easy toward the end, and once you get the Damage Helper turret, you can simply create walls of explosive turrets and utterly devastate the enemy Clockwork army. Even as the gameplay grows easier, though, it remains plenty of fun, and developing new strategies and tactics never gets old. The most enjoyable part is how much freedom you have in developing your tactics. You can go full-on offensive with turrets, create a defensive barrier to outlast enemy attacks, or, as I did in a few stages, create small trap areas and use Lock to lure enemies into brutal traps. Some tactics are more effective than others, but you're generally given a large amount of freedom to handle situations. Having the Source carry from battle to battle makes things a bit too easy at points, since the game appears designed under the assumption that you'll have the bare minimum of Source.
The primary game lasts 100 days over a wide variety of battlefields, but there are also a few bonus features available to you. One is the Siege mini-game, which occurs three times during the plot, but it can also be replayed later on to earn extra Source. The Siege mini-game is fairly simple and set on a 2-D plane, with your castle on the right side and Clockworks coming from the left. You have a turret that you can fire by touching the screen, which sends a cannonball flying at oncoming Clockworks. You have to keep them away from your Castle for five days in order to succeed. At the end of each day, you earn Source from the Clockworks you killed, which can be spent to buy power-ups or upgrade your turret to fire more cannonballs at once. The mini-game is pretty simple and nowhere near as addictive as the primary Tower Defense that makes up the vast majority of Lock's Quest, but it provides a nice little break in the festivities. The other major feature is the Hard mode, which was unlocked when you beat the game; it'll allow you to revisit old battlefields with all your unlocked turrets and traps. You're given a set amount of Source to replay these battles, and must do so against stronger Clockworks that appeared there the first time. While it isn't quite as addictive as the first run-through, these improved levels provide a nice extension to the game's length.
Visually, Lock's Quest is a completely charming game. Using SNES-style sprites to great effect, Lock's Quest is one of the very few games that manages to capture the charming 16-bit sprite style without feeling forced. The characters are bright and full of life, and the sprite work is simply amazing in places. It's really amazing how Emi, who is one-third the size of the already-tiny sprites, still manages to be animated and full of life. The character artwork is quite amusing as well, although it's worth noting that it doesn't really match up to the sprites that well. Overall, the game is just a treat for the eyes. The isometric view also plays out quite well in battle, although there are a few annoying moments where it is difficult to place a wall or turret among a group of others. Despite the amount of on-screen action and the well-animated sprites, there is never a touch of slowdown or lagging. Particularly impressive are the occasional cinematics, told in a fairy-tale paper book style that perfectly fits the game. One can't help but wish more DS games looked this good.
Locks' Quest is the sort of game for which the DS was made. It's quick and easy to pick up and play, makes great use of the touch-screen, and is just an overall delightful game. It isn't perfect, and there are plenty of places for a sequel to improve on, but it's charming, fun and one of the best titles to hit the DS this year. Even more surprising, it is an original IP from a fairly unknown developer. Cell has proven that they've got a strong grasp over what makes the DS such a good system, and I can't wait to see more games from this developer. For now, though, Lock's Quest offers plenty of excellent gameplay to keep you busy. It isn't going to reinvent any genres and may not be as lengthy or popular as one of Square Enix or Nintendo's offerings, but what it does offer is a whole lot of charming fun, and if you're a DS owner, you owe it to yourself to give this title a shot before it vanishes off shelves forever.
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